Anyone for gulli-danda?
The cricket matches I grew up with in the Indian subcontinent during the Forties and Fifties lasted five days. The players were dressed in immaculate white or off-white flannels, the ball was dark red and the spectators were well-dressed and sedate. It was no different in the West Indies: English cricket was everywhere the model. Our heroes were the great English batsmen and bowlers of the time. There were great Australians, too, but, we joked, they were only Englishmen twice removed – once from prison and once from England.
I always envied the apparently carefree life of the street children who played cricket the whole day long during the idyllic winter months from November till March. One year, when my parents were abroad, I bunked off school for a week to play with the street teams. It was bliss, even though I wasn’t very good and knew the only reason I had been allowed to play was that I had a new cricket ball – then, as now, a rare luxury.
When the street kids weren’t playing cricket, they played a game known as gulli-danda, using branches hacked off roadside trees or stray pieces of wood discarded by the shopkeepers. The gulli is a small wooden stake with pointed ends. When you lay it flat, the pointed ends rise slightly above the ground. The danda is a medium-sized stick with which you hit one end of the stake so that it jumps up in the air. As it comes down to about shoulder-level, you strike it really hard with the stick to make it go as far as possible. This isn’t as easy as it sounds: timing and eye-hand co-ordination are critical and you need a lot of practice to become an expert player. As they approached their teens, the more gifted gulli-danda players graduated effortlessly to cricket.
They shone in the matches between rival street-teams, usually played on dusty patches of earth and to a fixed over limit, though the teams were always bowled out before the overs were up. A number of these street cricketers could have gone far, but in the newly independent subcontinent the colonial mode persisted as much in cricket as in the officers’ mess and the gymkhana clubs, where civil servants gathered every evening for scotch and political gossip, just as the British had done.
In the first decades after Independence, cricket became more popular, but without any change in its character. Old habits were not easily displaced and at the top level the game remained polite, dominated by the middle and upper classes who still deferred to English ways. Ordinary people were confined to playing in the streets and shouting bawdy comments from the stands during a Test Match. In the lunch interval of the first Tests in Pakistan, there was a display by military bands. The sight of young, hairy-legged Punjabis and Pathans dressed in kilts and playing bagpipes greatly amused English journalists, though we took them for granted. Even now the sound of bagpipes reminds me of the first cricket matches I watched from the Victorian pavilion in the lush green field of the Lawrence Gardens (now the Jinnah Gardens), where Majid Khan’s father (and Imran Khan’s uncle), the stern-faced Dr Jehangir Khan, used to open the innings, and where, in a crucial Test Match between India and Pakistan in the Fifties, our most exciting batsman, Maqsood, was dismissed one run short of his century. I also remember the nostalgia when the Indian team arrived in Lahore. For my parents’ generation, it was a small, temporary, reversal of the ethnic cleansing that had accompanied Partition. In those days the Indian team was greeted warmly by the crowd.
[*] Hell for Leather by Robert Winder (Indigo, 256 pp., £7.99, 15 May, 0 575 40092 7).
Vol. 21 No. 15 · 29 July 1999
Gulli-danda, as described by Tariq Ali (LRB, 15 July), is the same game as tip-cat, which my grandfather introduced to me as having been a boyhood game in Gloucestershire in the 1870s. (The OED gives a date of 1801; the game is no doubt much older.) V.S. Naipaul's father, Seepersad, writes in his stories of stick-fighting contests in Trinidad between rival villages. This sport also figures in Thomas Hughes's The Scouring of the White Horse, set in Uffington in Berkshire. In both cases the fighting is described with some misgiving as to whether it is a desirable sport. Does the presence of identical pastimes in England and the former colonies mean that the games were carried out to these places by Britons, or is it that similar simple sports will arise anywhere?
Craven Arms, Shropshire
Vol. 21 No. 16 · 19 August 1999
Richard Taylor (Letters, 29 July) does not even consider the possibility that, far from having been carried to India from England, tip-cat might have come to Gloucestershire from India. Polo, of course, is the most clear-cut case of such a phenomenon; and I have seen it stated that in Canada the natives played a game not dissimilar to lacrosse, which European invaders took up. They changed the name, changed the rules and began teaching it back to the natives. This has not exactly happened with chess, another game said to have been invented in India; but it could be argued that Indian numerals, of which the Arabic are merely a modification, have been used in the same way as lacrosse, rewritten and taught back so that the originals have been superseded. One must, however, draw the line somewhere; and I would not go so far as to claim that snooker, proficiency at which is the proverbial sign of a misspent youth, was also an Indian invention. Now I come to think of it, though, it was invented in India, but by an Englishman, at Jubbulpore. If the Indians did not invent the game, they at least provided Sir Neville Chamberlain, an officer in the Devonshire Regiment in the 1870s, with the leisure to do so.
Vol. 21 No. 17 · 2 September 1999
It is likely that parallel evolution can best account for the origins of tip-cat and gulli-danda (Letters, 19 August). Almost identical versions of these games were to be found until quite recently in the North of England, where it was called ‘knurr and spell’, and in the Hebrides, where it was known as ‘speilean’, ‘iomart air speil’ or ‘cat and bat’. It is possible that these games spread around Britain (their names indicate as much), less likely that they travelled between here and the Indian subcontinent.
George Chowdharay-Best is correct to say that lacrosse was stolen from native Americans. They called it ‘baggataway’, until the 18th-century French pioneer Charlevoix noticed a contest in Algonquin country and renamed the game after the bishop’s crozier which the sport’s curved stick brought to his mind. However, the game was definitively legislated by the English Lacrosse Association in London in 1868 (‘these rules are greatly superior to the Canadian, and … they are the best which English experience has yet been able to devise’).
And Subaltern Neville Chamberlain and his colleagues did indeed while away the monsoon afternoons at Jubbulpore in 1875 playing a game which they christened ‘snooker’, after the slang term for a first-year army cadet (from the French for ‘novice’). Chamberlain later left the Devonshires, however, and following injury he took the game to the hill-station of Ootacamund, where snooker was further refined. The snooker room at the Ootacamund Club still advertises itself as the birthplace of the game.
Isle of Skye
Vol. 21 No. 21 · 28 October 1999
I was born and grew up in a remote corner of South-East Italy, a few kilometres from Otranto. The region is traditionally linked to Greece and the Balkans (there are still Greek-speaking communities in the province), but I didn’t think of India as part of its cultural heritage. One of my fondest memories, however, is of playing ‘gulli-danda’ in the streets as a ten-year-old in the early Sixties. The game was called mazza e pizzarieddhu in our local dialect, though it’s called lippa in Italian (nizza is preferred in Rome; pandolo in Venice).